For the second year in a row, the COVID-19 pandemic has forced museum professionals to gather virtually for the American Alliance of Museums’ Annual Meeting and MuseumExpo, versus in-person at its planned Chicago location. But unlike last year, cultural institutions have how had 15 months to reflect not only on the pandemic itself, but also on the cries for justice following the murder of George Floyd, Breona Taylor and too many others, the tumult of academia as students and teachers navigated virtual learning, and the gross inequities that COVID brought out of the shadows of theory and into the glare of reality.
While there were moments of joy and laughter throughout the conference, such as a cameo appearance by CBS Sunday Morning correspondent Mo Rocca, an interactive performance by legendary improvisational troupe, The Second City, and a behind-the-scenes virtual tour of Chicago’s most popular venues, the majority of the four-day event featured difficult discussions on how museums must acknowledge their past, assess their present, and anticipate their future in order to achieve resilience in a post-COVID world.
In keeping with the conference’s theme of “Resilient, Together,” AAM President and CEO, Laura Lott, warned of the “myriad challenges” ahead but also reminded attendees of how far the industry has come since the pandemic began. As a result of last year’s Annual Meeting, museums began asking themselves “what aspects of traditional practice have not served us well – as professionals and institutions? And how can we rebuild more sustainably, more equitably? What is the role of museums in bridging divides, bringing communities together, and fostering empathy, understanding, and belonging?”
By engaging in this internal reflective work, museums have become better at not only identifying opportunities for growth, but also identifying the characteristics that make them essential community assets. In Spring 2020, one-third of all museums reported that they were at risk of permanent closure. It was clear that, to survive, cultural institutions would need government support. With the help of AAM, museum advocates sent over 60,000 messages to the U.S. Congress, resulting in an amount of government funding unprecedented in the 115-year history of the Alliance. Now, less than 15% of museums claim to be at near-term risk. Lott described this achievement as “the collective power when we come together” but cautioned museums to not to rest on their laurels. Instead, cultural institutions must embrace a spirit of renewal in pursuit of a more equitable future.
“Our museums have the opportunity to be leaders in rebuilding, to be the promise for recovery and catalysts for reimagining our communities – stronger than they’ve ever been,” Lott explained. “There is no place for hesitation or fear in the next steps that we, as a field, must take in the coming months and years…We must boldly challenge the status quo, rethink outdated models, and lift up the many brave individuals in museums across the globe who are leading us into new frontiers.”